You’re Spending Too Much Money With Google. Here’s Why.

I’m finally admitting to myself that I’m never going to land a cool job at Google. I’ve been sending singing telegrams to Larry for years (do you know how hard it is to come up with lyrics that rhyme with “Severts?”) and I’ve never received a single response. Can you believe that?

It’s okay, because I’m pretty sure I never had the right stuff for Google. First of all, I’m ancient by the company’s standards. I’m older than Sergey Brin. According to Silicon Valley lore, time didn’t start until Sergey was born, so I’m not sure what that makes me.

Second, I don’t live in the Bay Area. The Bay Area, if you haven’t heard, is where all the Smart People in the world live. Their success, they will be quick to tell you, is entirely a product of their merit. Luck plays no part. Just ask that PayPal guy whose name I can never remember—Peter something or other.   He travels the country telling us stupid people that we should try to be more like him.

As I have slowly clawed out of my deep depression over being old and stupid, I have realized that there’s an upside to this tragedy. I am now liberated! I can finally speak my mind about Google because I no longer have to worry about torpedoing my job prospects there.  So here it goes.

I don’t actually believe that all the Smart People live in the Bay Area, of course, but I can see why “Googlers” might think that. Why? Because the rest of us buy their Adwords keywords without using our brains, sending trainloads of unearned cash to Mountain View so that Googlers can continue to indulge in perks like ermine-lined commuting buses and break rooms full of free fois gras (from humanely-stuffed geese.)


ROAS is really GROAS

Here’s the problem.   When digital marketing people bid for keywords, they keep score for themselves with something called ROAS, which stands for Return On Advertising Spending. This sounds very precise and very smart, which everybody who uses it will assure you it is. And it elegantly requires that you input only two numbers: how much you spent on your advertising (s), and how much revenue the advertising generated for you (r.) Simply divide r by s and voila! You now know exactly how effective your advertising is.

Ah, if only it were that easy. Instead, I am going to argue that ROAS is not very helpful, and that in some cases it is dangerously deceptive. Allow me to explain why.

It’s always obvious how much you spent on your advertising (s), but the revenue that spending generates (r) is often difficult to determine. How can that be? After all, you know exactly how many people clicked on the ads, and it’s usually quite easy to determine what they bought from you (let’s keep things simple and assume you only sell goods online—physical stores create all kinds of new measurement problems.) So what’s difficult about it?

The challenge is in determining what part of that revenue was truly incremental, and what part was going to come to you anyway. To do this, you must estimate your base case, or what some people might call your counterfactual. By this I mean what would have happened in a parallel world where you did not purchase the ad.

When you mention this concept to Google’s salespeople (or, to be fair, any salesperson from any digital agency or network), they will look at you like you’re speaking Klingon. Part of their confusion is probably real, as it appears that they don’t get asked this question very often. And part of it, I suspect, is feigned, for even the salespeople at Google are supposed to be Smart People.

A Smart Person might find this analogy useful. Let’s assume that you and I own a donut shop. One day, let’s say it’s a Tuesday, we decide we want to grow our business, so we hire a neighborhood kid to walk around in front of our store dressed up like a Bavarian Cream. How would we determine if our money was well spent?

Well, we know what we paid the kid (s). That’s easy. But how much extra revenue (r) was generated?  We certainly wouldn’t count all our revenues for the day. Instead, we would take today’s revenue and subtract our base case.   What’s the base case? How about Monday’s sales? Or better yet, our sales from Tuesday of last week (donut sales probably vary depending on the day of the week.)

As stupefyingly obvious as this seems, the ROAS metric does not do this. Instead, it will use the equivalent of all of Tuesday’s donut sales.

If you are a digital marketing person, I can already hear you saying, “No it doesn’t! It only measures the revenue coming in directly from paid search! Organic search is tracked separately!” It is technically true that these sources of traffic are tracked separately, but the ROAS math implicitly assumes that all the paid search volume you receive is new, that none of it was stolen from organic search. This is completely false. Invariably some of that traffic was diverted, and in those cases, your marketing spending was wasted.

So ROAS is improperly named. I would propose that it should instead be called GROAS (pronounced “gross!”), for Gross Return on Advertising Spending.

Try ROAST instead

The metric digital marketers should be using is something I call ROAST, for Return On Advertising Spending–True dat!  I know this name is terrible, but the acronym sounds yummy.

ROAST will never settle for (G)ROAS’s distortion of the truth. It will always insist on estimating a base case so that we will know with more certainty what our true return on investment is.

The first step in calculating ROAST is to parse your keywords into similar buckets or to analyze them individually. I know this sounds insane, especially to those of you who are running five-million-keyword campaigns, but you’re going to see in a minute why this is necessary (and why your automated software platform could be leading you down a rat hole.)

The second step is to take that keyword (or tranche of very similar keywords) and estimate the likelihood that a customer would have clicked on your organic listing anyway (had you never placed the ad.) Let’s call this percentage (b) (a value somewhere between 0% and 100%.)

How do you estimate this probability? I can think of at least two options:

  1. Take an educated guess.  A good, honest effort will be much better than the (G)ROAS assumption of zero; so don’t be too hard on yourself. If you sell donuts online, believe you have a 20% share of that market, and your organic listing is in second place, then 20% seems like a fair estimate for a keyword like “online donuts.” If you want to be conservative, go with 10%.
  2. Experiment.  This is what the Smart People at Google would do! They would turn off a particular campaign for a defined period of time (for a week, a day, or even an hour) and measure how much of that paid traffic seeped over into organic search.

The third step is to calculate ROAST with this simple formula: (r(1-b))/s. Or, if you already have the (G)ROAS, just multiply it by (1-b). Using this math, an estimated b of 20% will reduce a $10 (G)ROAS to an $8 ROAST.

The superiority of ROAST: an example

So what, you say. Whether I use ROAS, GROAS, or ROAST, it all seems the same to me. Well, all these terms are indeed identical as long as you assume that b is the same across every keyword. But this is most certainly not true.

To illustrate, let’s use the example of the donut shop again, but let’s now stipulate that we only sell donuts online. Let’s assume that one of the keywords we have purchased is “Jeff’s Donut Shop.” Google, our platform software, and our digital agency will all tell us we should buy this “branded” keyword because its (G)ROAS is very high. The (G)ROAS is so high, by the way, because the people typing that term into Google are very inclined to buy donuts from us, so they generate a lot of revenue after they click on our ad.

But certainly you would admit that somebody who has just typed “Jeff’s Donut Shop” into Google is on a very specific mission. They know about our donuts and want to find our web site. So as long as we are in first place in the organic listings (where we should be if Google has done its job properly, which it almost always does), the customer is highly likely to find our listing and click on it.

In this case, I would argue we should estimate b at 95% or more. Again, it would be better (and reasonably easy) to determine this by suspending and restarting the associated Adwords campaign, but this guess will suffice for now.

If we’re right about b being 95% and we insert that number into our ROAST formula, we will find that a very high (G)ROAS of $20 for “Jeff’s Donut Shop” will translate into a ROAST of $1. Yikes!

In contrast, let’s explore a keyword like “online donuts.” This is not a branded keyword and as such will have a lower (G)ROAS. People who type this term into the search box are less certain about where they are going to buy their donuts. They will probably look at several sites, and they may be completely unfamiliar with Jeff’s Donut Shop, so even if they click on our ad, they are much less likely to buy from us than the first group, so their (G)ROAS will be much lower. For the same reasons, these people are much less likely to click on our organic listing.

Consequently, for “online donuts,” I would roughly estimate b at 10%.   This will reduce a $2 (G)ROAS to a $1.80 ROAST.

The table below shows you the wildly divergent answers (G)ROAS and ROAST will give you in this example.

Keyword                                  (G)ROAS                ROAST

“Jeff’s Donut Shop”               $20.00                    $1.00

“Online donuts”                      $2.00                      $1.80

If you use (G)ROAS, “Jeff’s Donut Shop” is ten times more productive than “online donuts.”   If you refer instead to ROAST, the roles are reversed, and “online donuts” is 80% more effective than “Jeff’s Donut Shop.” I’m sure you’ll agree this is a remarkably different picture.

Key takeaways

I would encourage you to take away two things from all this. First, ROAST will always be lower than (G)ROAS. Your advertising on Google (or any other digital platform) is always less productive than the (G)ROAS says it is (assuming all your return is generated online) because (G)ROAS doesn’t account for the base case.

Second, (G)ROAS in most cases severely overestimates the return on branded terms. This leads to some very bad decision-making. Software platforms that optimize for (G)ROAS will buy up branded terms first, sending money to Google that should have stayed in your pocket. At one client of mine, the software was buying up the entire market for branded terms because it was so enamored of the terms’ high (G)ROAS. Meanwhile, the platform passed up many juicy non-branded terms—because the budget had been drained in the pointless pursuit of branded terms.

Digital marketers who are managing their campaigns manually will usually make the same mistake. Even if they understand that branded keywords are incomparable to non-branded, they will often add them to their mix to “increase their ROAS,” often at the behest of their agency or salesperson. This is absurd, but very common!

Anticipated objections

Defenders of the status quo will probably object to these arguments in the following ways:

  1. They will say everybody knows that branded keywords are different from non-branded. This is generally true, but digital marketers don’t appear to truly understand the implications of the differences, leading to the bad behaviors I’ve described.  Critics who defend using ROAS reveal that they don’t understand the implications either.
  2. They will say that smart marketers knowingly overpay for branded terms so that they can block out evil competitors. This is the line I would use if I were a Google salesperson. And I’m sure in some cases this is a legitimate threat. But certainly one should wait until that threat actually materializes before reacting to it. And if one does react, one should use the proper ROAST math to determine the right level of investment. Someone typing your company’s name into Google is unlikely to be easily swayed by a small text ad from your competitor.

Most of these objections from critics will be swathed in layers of industry mumbo jumbo with a dollop of condescension. Don’t be intimidated. Just ask them how they’re accounting for the base case.

 A final exercise

If you buy these arguments and are starting to feel like a sucker, please don’t. Some of the largest, most sophisticated advertisers in the country are guilty of this (G)ROAS obsession. Take a quick look at the big wireless carriers. If you type their names into Google, you will discover that they all place paid ads right on top of their organic listings.

You’ll also notice that none of these companies are buying ads for their competitors’ branded keywords. If these viciously competitive spendthrifts aren’t trying to steal branded keyword traffic from their mortal enemies, do you really think you have a lot to worry about with your competitors?

One final thing. I can’t help but notice that as of August 29th, 2015, the keyword “YouTube” generates no paid ads on Google (see the picture at the head of this article.) The same goes for “Google maps” and “Gmail.”

It appears that some Smart People at Google understand ROAST after all.


I Am Going to Give Away My Apple Watch

Dear Apple Designers,

I am thinking of giving my Apple Watch to Turner. Turner is my dog.

I am considering gifting the Watch to my dog because the blue band looks nice with his red coat (see picture above) and he will probably enjoy the Watch more than I do.

Before you dismiss me as an Apple-hating crank, know that your company and I have had a monogamous relationship (on my end, anyway) since about 2008. I am embarrassed to admit that my home currently contains two iMacs, one MacBook Air, two iPads, four iPhones, two Apple TVs, and an iPod carcass at the bottom of every dresser drawer.

I should love the Apple Watch, but ever since I bought my 38mm Sport model two months ago, my enthusiasm has waned faster than Scott Walker’s poll numbers.

This product, unlike nearly everything else you’ve designed in the last decade, is maddeningly complex and unintuitive.   Let me share just a few of my frustrations.

What do you mean I have to plug it in?

I know, I know, everything electronic has to be plugged in. I get it. But I’m not used to plugging in my watch. It’s been decades since I even had to wind my watch.

This means that I invariably forget to plug in the Watch. I only realize my error when the Watch dies or is about to, so I often have to take it off in the middle of the day and recharge it.

This wouldn’t be a problem for an ordinary watch, but some of the more interesting functions you’ve designed into the Watch require that I wear it continuously. Take all that health stuff, for example. Every time I go to take a quick 20K run, the Watch shows that it’s at twelve percent battery power or less, so I have to leave it behind while I’m out knocking down four-minute miles.   I then get no credit for all those steps. None at all.

Later that evening, the Watch will send me a perky message congratulating me on burning 307 calories for the day. 307 calories! Hell, I burned that many calories before breakfast!

This is very irritating. However, I am willing to admit that I am a bit of a curmudgeon, and that even I am capable of learning new habits. I intend to dedicate myself to learning to plug in the Watch every evening. But couldn’t you make it easier? Couldn’t you design an elegant pad or receptacle of some kind that would look great on my nightstand?   That little magnetized white disk you give us now is ridiculous. My electric toothbrush would be embarrassed to sit on that thing.

What do you mean I have to enter a passcode every time I put it on?

Why do you make me do this? The Watch knows that I’m me. It’s talking to my iPhone in my pocket!

If it’s not me, if somebody has managed to steal both my iPhone and my Watch, and if I haven’t figured out a way to disable the phone through your Find My iPhone app, then I’m probably dead. If that’s the case, I’m not worried about the Watch.

But maybe I’m wrong and your Apple lawyers are right. If we have to keep the Watch secure at all costs, then please allow me to do it in some way that doesn’t require that I use my fat finger to type on numbers smaller than banana seeds.

Wait, I have an idea! How about using my fingerprint? Wouldn’t that be cool? Do you think you guys could figure out a way to use some kind of whiz-bang sensor to recognize my fingerprint? I’m sure that’s impossible, the kind of tech you would only see in Flash Gordon, but maybe if you start working on it . . .

Finding and opening an app is harder than untying the Gordian Knot!

You can’t possibly expect me to find the app I’m looking for amongst that sea foam of app bubbles. And if I do find it by some miracle, I can never get the thing open easily. I sometimes forget my passcode frustrations and try hitting it with my finger, but you already know how that turns out.

So then I usually try that wheel thingy. First of all, that only works if I have somehow dragged my app victim to the center location on the screen, a task that requires a lace maker’s patience, as the Watch always wants to second-guess my efforts. And then, after I’ve finally centered the wandering app, I will inevitably spin the thingy in the wrong direction (Do I spin it up? Or is it down?), making the app disappear back into the sea foam.   Arrgghh!

When will these apps start helping me?  

I’m still waiting for an app on my watch to do something really cool.  I’m not sure what that would be, exactly, but here are a few top-of-mind thoughts:

How about a timely update on what’s going on in the world? The Dow dropped 1000 points yesterday morning and the Watch didn’t bother to tell me about it, even though I am loaded for bear with the New York Times, NPR, and BBC apps. I’m sure that getting that kind of alert is possible, and that I’m supposed to find the setting somewhere six menus deep on my iPhone that will allow such effrontery, but the Watch should already know that I use those three apps more than any other on my phone, and that I would welcome a little morsel of news once in a while.

Here’s another example. I rode my bike last weekend on a bike path in a forest reserve. Before I set out, I tried to use your workout app to understand what health benefits I would be accruing for all my hard work. After a few minutes of hitting the wrong buttons and falling into screen traps I couldn’t escape, I gave up.

But then I started to think, wait a second, there’s a computer in this Watch! Or in the iPhone it’s paired with, anyway. And a whole bunch of other cool technology too! Like GPS! So why can’t the Watch derive from my location and speed that I’m riding my bike? Why can’t it determine whether I’m riding on a gravel path or tarmac? Up a hill or down? Isn’t that information stored somewhere on the Internet? Couldn’t the Watch use those data and what it knows about my weight and fitness to automatically calculate the calories I burned? Couldn’t it send me an unexpected message at the end of the day, surprising me with that calculation?

Instead, it sends me a message saying I burned 307 calories.

I guess what I’m asking for is a watch that makes an effort to know me and proactively communicates the information I will find most relevant. I’m sure that’s hard, but is it any harder than creating the Mac in 1984? The iPhone in 2007?

What’s with the screen latency and unreliable gesture controls?

You’re not going to believe it, but the one task I’ve consistently burdened the Watch with is waking me up from my rare mid-afternoon naps. “Siri,” I say with careful enunciation and measured pace, “Please set a timer for twenty-five minutes.” And then I stretch out on the couch and nod off, comfortable in the knowledge that the Watch will wake me as requested.

Twenty-five minutes later, without fail, the Watch gently taps me on the wrist and emits a pleasingly soft sound of chiming bells. As I wade my way out of the mists of sleep, I twist my wrist over and up to my face so that I can dismiss the alarm.   The screen, normally so eager to illuminate, remains dark. I put my arm down to my waist and repeat the motion. Still dark. I try a third time. Nothing. I then sit up and flick my wrist yet again. The screen finally lights up, but just as I’m about to hit the “dismiss” button, it disappears. Desperate, I now hit the wheel thingy. The screen appears. I push the “dismiss” button. Nothing happens. I go to push the button again, but the screen goes dark once more. All the while the haptic feedback and the chiming continues, transforming now into a throbbing Chinese water torture of taps and ringing bells. How do I turn this thing off? Another wrist flip, another push of the wheel thingy, and the screen finally reappears. Ready for it this time, I move my finger to the screen in a flash. I hit the button. The chiming continues. I hit it, didn’t I? I push it again. The Watch finally succumbs.

I revel in the silence, fully awake, and completely enraged.

The Watch is far, far short of the brilliance I expect from you. It feels like a product that has been designed by committee, with little attempt to imagine how it would be used, and too much deference to reasonable expectations and compromise. You can do so much better.

Until then, the Watch will be Turner’s.

What Macklemore Can Teach Us About Corporate Innovation

The last time I had a good grip on pop culture was late in the Clinton administration, so imagine my surprise when I stumbled upon Macklemore singing Downtown on Jimmy Fallon last week.   Actually, it wasn’t just Macklemore, but a whole musical entourage including a bunch of rappers I’ve never heard of.

The performance was going quite well, but perhaps somewhat conventionally, until about two minutes into the song, when a very skinny man in tights with holes in the knees burst onto the stage, singing the refrain at a pitch that could only be described as Streisandesque.

OK, I thought, this guy (I later found out his name is Eric Nally), with his flamboyant dance moves and his 70s porn star mustache, is the new Freddie Mercury. He’s not doing anything that fresh. But then he started swinging around the long tassels attached to his blouse sleeves like taffeta windmills and I had to concede that he was on his own plane of creativity.

It wasn’t just his performance that impressed me. It was the marvelously discontinuous combination of all the elements on that stage. It was bizarre and thrilling at the same time—kind of like watching the Cubs legitimately compete for the pennant.

I was so dumbstruck that I immediately logged onto the world’s most authoritative research resource: YouTube. After a bit of digging, I found the Downtown video and confirmed that I am slightly behind the pop culture curve, as I was the 51,789,921st soul to view it. If by chance you’re not part of that exclusive club, take a look at the video here (warning: some of the lyrics are naughty):  Macklemore and Lewis: Downtown

Whether you like the video or not (I love it, by the way), the question I have for you is this: Could something like this ever emerge from a corporate development process? Could an innovation team inside a company ever generate a concept so new?

I can imagine Macklemore and Lewis pitching the concept to the team . . .

Right after the scene where Macklemore drives around on a Harley with a large stuffed moose head strapped to the front of it, we’re going to cut to Eric leading a phalanx of 300-pound rappers on mopeds. He’ll be riding in a Roman-style chariot pulled by four rider-less motorcycles. What do you think?

We all know how well that would go.

Macklemore and Lewis avoid this risk because they are independent—the only artists in the last twenty years to top the Billboard charts without the support of a major label. That independence, I suspect, is a big reason why they’re able to produce such a wonderfully creative product.  If they were running their work through corporate approval committees, their videos would probably look something like this:  One Direction: Perfect

Wasn’t that horrible? Didn’t that look like it was assembled by a team as if they were knocking together a piece of IKEA furniture?

Why do corporate decision-making processes squeeze all the life out of creativity and innovation? Is there something pathological about company structures or incentives that makes this inevitable?

Maybe. But I’m more inclined to chalk it up to human nature and how it manifests in groups of people, whether the context is business, politics, religion, or whatever.

Group decision-making processes will invariably identify and prefer ideas that appeal to the majority. Radical ideas, ideas that challenge the conventional wisdom and make people uncomfortable, will be rejected outright or diluted bit by bit until they are soggy and digestible for the middle of the bell curve.

This is perfect for the world of politics, where radical ideas can quickly lead to people swinging from lampposts. And it also works in business when the mission calls for incremental improvement, or for mobilizing the company to take on a large, uncontroversial task.

But when real innovation is required, consider setting aside anything resembling democratic principles. Breakthrough corporate innovation is almost always driven by powerful despots (e.g. Steve Jobs), mission-driven entrepreneurs (another form of despotism), or small, autonomous teams like Lockheed’s Skunk Works or IBM’s first PC team.

Here’s my personal checklist for facilitating corporate innovation:

Keep teams very small. Every additional team member (starting with the second!) significantly reduces the likelihood of developing a truly innovative idea. Teams tend to swell in size because modern management techniques place a high value on cross-functional collaboration. That’s great for many tasks, but not for innovation.

Embrace team competition. I strongly believe that three small teams competing against each other will generate more and better solutions than one large team. You would think this would be self-evident given the virtues of competition in our capitalist system, but I often find people very resistant to this idea. Perhaps it feels wasteful somehow. After all, that’s what the Russkies used to tell themselves—that having more than one factory making soap was a waste of the Motherland’s resources!

Staff the teams with kooks. Let’s face it, most people are not capable of generating radically new ideas. They just aren’t. Some consultants will claim that innovation is a process that can be learned, but I believe that’s only true in cases of incremental innovation, like tagless t-shirts or the 14th flavor of Cheerios.

It’s the kooks that come up with the big ideas. Their brains are wired differently, and they’ve spent a lifetime honing their ability to fight or ignore the persistently eroding drip-drip-drip of the majority’s skepticism.

Protect the kooks! Even though the kooks are well insulated against other peoples’ opinions, they are not immune to the political sabotage that permeates organizations. Driven by resentment, fear, or disgust, the normal people will ostracize the kooks, sometimes through soft neglect, and other times through naked aggression. A great CEO will know who her kooks are, and will make it clear to the organization that they operate under her ever-present protection.